How Magic Mushrooms Work

A Brief History of Magic Mushrooms

Timothy Leary
Dr. Timothy Leary, a leading LSD proponent in the U.S., addresses the National Student Association conference in 1967. Bettman/Getty Images

Some historians believe that magic mushrooms may have been used as far back as 9000 B.C. in North African indigenous cultures, based on representations in rock paintings. Statues and other representatives of what appear to be mushrooms that have been found in Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America. The Aztecs used a substance called teonanácatl, which means "flesh of the gods," that many believe was magic mushrooms. Along with peyote, morning glory seeds and other naturally occurring psychotropics, the mushrooms were used to induce a trance, produce visions and communicate with the gods. When Spanish Catholic missionary priests came to the New World in the 16th century, some of them wrote about the use of these psychotropic substances.

However, the idea that magic mushrooms have a long, holy history is highly controversial. Some believe that none of this evidence is definitive, and that people are seeing what they want to see in the ancient paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. There is confirmed use among several contemporary tribes of indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mazatec, Mixtec, Nauhua and Zapatec.


Magic mushrooms began to be eaten by Westerners in the late 1950s. A mycologist (one who studies mushrooms) named R. Gordon Wasson was traveling through Mexico to study mushrooms in 1955. He witnessed and participated in a ritual ceremony using magic mushrooms. It was conducted by a shaman of the Mazatec, an indigenous people who live in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Wasson wrote an article about his findings, which was published in Life magazine in 1957. An editor came up with the title "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" and the article is the source of the phrase, although Wasson didn't use it. One of Wasson's colleagues, Roger Heim, had enlisted the help of Albert Hofmann (the "father" of LSD), who isolated and extracted psilocybin and psilocin from the mushrooms Heim and Wasson brought back from Mexico [source: Harvard University].

Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of psychotropic drugs such as LSD, read the Life article and was intrigued, and he began experimenting with them at Harvard University. From there, magic mushrooms became inextricably tied to the hippie movement and its search for a new form of spirituality for the rest of the decade. For years, mushrooms were mostly associated with the counterculture [source: Harvard University].

But these days, magical fungi are finding broader acceptance in popular culture. Some people have taken up what's called "microdosing" with psilocybin, essentially consuming tiny amounts of the chemical. They don't experience full-blown trips. Instead, they feel a boost in mood and creativity that they believe lowers their anxiety and makes them more productive. Some studies seem to support their claims [source: Garlick].

Scientists are now pursuing a number of avenues of research on these mysterious chemicals. The 1970s brought a ban on psilocybin except for medical research, which only recently began again after more than 30 years. In October 2018, the Food & Drug Administration granted Compass Pathways permission to research mushrooms as a treatment for depression. Researchers plan to combine intense therapy with psilocybin in hopes of finding better ways to combat treatment-resistant depression, which they say affects about 100 million people worldwide [source: Compass].

In September 2019, Johns Hopkins University unveiled its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. There, scientists plan to evaluate psilocybin as a possible treatment for everything from opioid addiction, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, nicotine and alcohol dependency, and many other ailments.

There are many other researchers around the world digging into the possible medicinal uses of these magical chemicals. All of them seek to unlock the way magic mushrooms and their compounds interact with our brains and bodies. Perhaps their work will unlock the doors of perception in our minds in ways we can't yet even begin to imagine.

Related Articles

More Great Sources

  • Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
  • North American Mycological Association
  • David Fischer's American Mushrooms
  • The Safety 1st Project: Mushrooms (PDF)


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